PBS: Ray Charles: The Genius of Soul"

Valerie Ervin and Susan Lacy
Office Manager of Ray Charles Enterprises, Series Creator and Executive Producer
Thursday, May 19, 2005; 12:00 PM

The documentary "Ray Charles: The Genius of Soul" is part of the PBS series "American Masters." Having premiered on Wednesday, May 18, at 9 p.m. ET, it follows the Grammy Award winning artist's life from his childhood through his career, taking a look at his musical influences and the creation of his distinctive style. The film examines the singer's dark side as well as his delightful side, exploring his 15-year heroin addiction and his pursuit of women, but also his chess playing with Willie Nelson, his joking onstage with Johnny Carson and his relationship with his lifelong friend Quincy Jones.

Valerie Ervin, office manager of Ray Charles Enterprises and Ray Charles's executive assistant for the 10 years before his death at the age of 73, and Susan Lacy, series creator and executive producer, were online Thursday, May 19, at Noon ET to discuss the film and the entertainer's life and career.

During his life, Charles won a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. Eight months after his death, he won another eight Grammys, including Best Album and Best Record of 2004.

Lacy has been responsible for the production and national broadcast of 130 documentary biographies on artists who have made a significant impact on American culture.

The transcript follows.


Valerie Ervin: Hello everybody! My name is Valerie Ervin and I am an employee of Ray Charles Enterprises, the office manager/executive assistant and have been for the past 10 years, to Mr. Ray Charles and his business manager, Joe Adams.


Susan Lacy: Hi, this is Susan Lacy, I am the creator and Executive Producer of the American Masters series. I am delighted to be here.


Shaker Heights, Ohio: What specifically about Ray Charles do you think continues to inspire such obsessively interested, loyal fans?

Valerie Ervin: Susan Answering -- I think great genius has no boundaries, in terms of time. In the same way that we still appreciate the Renaissance painters and always will, we'll always appreciate our greatest performing artists. And he was one of our greatest performing artists. I also think that the human element of his story and his struggle, and his triumph over that struggle, enables people to relate to him on a very human scale.

Valerie - - He was just a genuine man, and genuine to his love of music and the music inside of him.


Chicago, Ill.: Why can't I purchase American Masters "genius of soul ray charles" yet for my video library?

Susan Lacy: Well, it's something we're working on. When I first started the series we didn't have the funding to clear all our programs for all of the markets. We were lucky if we could get them on the air. And this is a 15 year old program with complicated rights clearances that we've been unable to get through. But it's being worked on!


New York, N.Y.: Ms. Ervin, how did Mr. Charles feel about the script of the movie "Ray"? There are a lot of departures from things I've read about his actual life, including "Brother Ray." Do you know what he felt about that?

Valerie Ervin: Mr. Charles was very pleased with the movie, having a great deal of input in the script writing, verifications of actions. It was an honor to him to really portray and show the world a lot of his obstacles, triumphs, and victories that he is proud of that made him what he was. He loved it. He was very pleased. Mr. Charles wanted this movie to be an inspiration and a learning experience for all of those people in the world who thought or think that they cannot be somebody.


Vineland, N.J.: Valerie, So sorry about the passing of your boss ... he was loved by millions and I'm sure you very much. What would you want people to know about him that hasn't been "out there" already?

Valerie Ervin: He was such a soft - Ray was very soft, caring. There was the man behind the entertainer. And I believe I'll miss his teachings and wisdom most of all, and our quiet time of talking.


Hartford, Conn.: For Susan Lacy: I've watched Americans Masters for years now and have to ask: are your selections for the program getting more pop-culture driven? Looking at the season schedule on your Web site, there are a lot of popular artists like Ray Charles and James Dean and Lucille Ball...are they there because that's what "sells" these days?

Susan Lacy: That's an excellent question. And a very astute perception. When I first started this series we were able to be broader in topic selection. But it has been a struggle to keep American Masters alive and on the air. And the feedback that we've gotten from PBS stations around the country is that popular culture works best for their audiences. That is not to say that American Masters will only be a popular culture series, because I would have to leave as executive producer if that were the case. Within this block of programs you see we are also doing Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Stevens, Sam Goldwyn, etc. That will always be the case. Though, it does seem that the greater percentage of films will be, for the moment, popular culture films.


Fairfax, Va.: I'm one of the few people who didn't see the movie "Ray" but I feel like I don't have to after seeing last night's interesting program.

A question: do you think Ray saw himself as an embodiment of the civil rights movement? A beneficiary?

Thank you.

Valerie Ervin: That's a hard one to answer! He had really complicated views on that.


Fond du Lac, Wis.: My dad is a HUGE Ray Charles fan and I too at 30 adore his talents! I grew up listening to Ray, and my dad, who is a musician singing Ray all the time. My dad is a drummer and singer, a drummer that would have given love or money to "watch Ray's feet"! My dad was out of town and missed the special, and I caught it from middle to end. How can I get a DVD or VHS of the show???? Thank you for your help!

Susan Lacy: Please see my previous answer. Hopefully it will be available in the near future.

_______________________ Check local listings on PBS for Program Schedules


Augusta, Ga.: I was too young, and perhaps too oblivious, to realize the role Augusta played in the life of Ray Charles. It was a sad time in our history when facilities and even concert halls were segregated. It is an uplifting irony that a Ray Charles is now the Georgia state song. What were some of Ray Charles's thoughts about Georgia and Augusta and how Georgians have changed over time?

Valerie Ervin: I think the best way to put that in the words of Mr. Charles, is that he didn't understand any of that because he judged people by who they were, and not color. He stood his ground on not performing because the audience was segregated. He felt that all people should be together for the love of music. So when the song became the state song, he was very pleased with that. He just didn't understand it. Those were just things he didn't speak on because Mr. Charles felt, if it didn't make sense, he was not going to deal with it. So the times when things became as one, he was very pleased about it, and very honored, and very humble. And very excited to have played a role in making that transition.


Troy, Mich.: Susan, Why didn't you update the Genius of Soul program to account for Ray's later years?

Susan Lacy: Well this show was made 15 years. And I would have loved to have updated it. We added the In Memoriam. But we simply didn't have the funds to go back into this program in order to stay within the restrictions of the time period. We would have had to have taken something out or have expanded the show by about 25 minutes. Financially, neither was an option.


Washington, D.C.: For Ms. Ervin: As Mr. Charles assistant, I imagine you spent a great deal of time with him -- how self sufficient was he really -- did he need full time companionship because of his blindness?

Valerie Ervin: Absolutely not. Being the assistant to Mr. Charles was consistent as being an assistant to a sighted person. In those aspects, it was discussing projects, what do you think of this? Take this letter down, general things like that. There was no difference because of his blindness. He was a businessman.


Atlantic City, N.J.: Valerie, Were you involved in the making of the Ray movie at all? And what did you think of both the PBS show and the movie?

Valerie Ervin: I was very involved with the Ray movie with Mr. Charles and decision making. The PBS special I believe was the closest portrayal of Mr. Charles that I have ever encountered outside of the movie. I was not involved with the PBS special because it was made 15 years ago. I think the PBS special was one of the greatest documentaries I have seen of Mr. Charles that showed who he was and what he was all about, and being that Mr. Charles was such a private man, to let him open up to PBS was a great, great moment. I think both the PBS special and Ray were great.


Wilmington, Del.: Valerie, I know this is probably a hard question, but can you describe the time of Ray's passing? How did you hear? Were you all as shocked as those of us in the general public? I mean, I was personally blown away. I had just read about a recent performance of his in the news for heaven's sake!

Valerie Ervin: No I was not surprised. Mr. Charles had a very graceful passing. To sum it up, he did it his way.


Pacifica, Calif.: Valerie, How did you come to work for Mr. Charles? What work lives on for him that your company is doing? Any new compilations coming up?

Valerie Ervin: I worked for another company in the building of RPM International. Mr. Charles on occasion would lease his downstairs facility. At that time I was around Mr. Charles for about six years, going and coming, and he would always say, When are you going to come work for me? And I would always say, Never! And as Mr. Charles put to me, Never say never! He made me an offer I couldn't refuse. And yes, we will have more compilations out there. Mr. Charles loved music so much as the PBS special expressed, when he wasn't on the road, he was in his studio, and there are hundreds of tracks that we still have to go thru. So keep looking out for it!


Burlington, Vt.: Ray Charles was known to be a very demanding employer -- both for his musicians and employees of RPM. Do you have any comments about this?

Valerie Ervin: Laughing! Yes, he was very demanding. But --- the flip side to that was if he asked you to do something once, and you got it wrong, it was a mistake. If he asked you to do it again, and you got it wrong, you were not listening. The third time, was unacceptable. That's it.


New York, N.Y.: What is the status of the musical I hear is being planned for Broadway or the West End? Are Mr. Adams or Mr. Charles' son involved?

Valerie Ervin: Mr. Adams is involved in it. And we're still in the very early stages. Ray Charles, Jr. will not be involved.


Arlington, Mass.: I loved the American Masters bio of Ray Charles. Small point, but I just wondered if any/all of the photos/footage from his childhood were actually of him. Thanks! Judy

Valerie Ervin: The photos were of Mr. Charles.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: Do you know if Ray Charles ever sang, 'You Are So Beautiful"? If so, do you know which album, I would like to buy it.

Valerie Ervin: I do know Mr. Charles sang that song, but I don't know which album it's on. I've heard him sing it live here at the office as well.


Herndon, Va.: The best live concert I ever saw was Ray and his band, with the Raelettes, of course, back in 1963. The band played the first set, which was great enough, then Ray and the ladies came out after intermission and tore the place up! I couldn't get to the TV set last night -- when will this be rerun??

Susan Lacy: Each market controls their own rerun schedule. Your best bet it to call your local public television station, and ask them for the repeat station. And we have just posted the link for you to check your local listings.

_______________________ Check your local listings on PBS for Program Schedules


Susan Lacy: They are generally rerun within the first seven days of the original broadcast. But having re-cleared this show, because it's an old show, and it's now available for the next four years, at individual station's discretion...CHECK YOUR LOCAL LISTINGS!


Cincinnati, Ohio: How did Ray loose his sight ?

Valerie Ervin: We believe and understand it was due to glaucoma. In those days, they didn't know much about it, and there weren't funds to treat it.


Burlington, Vt.: Unfortunately, many of Ray Charles's albums have not made it to CD. Can you tell us about any Ray Charles albums that may be re-released in the future?

Valerie Ervin: All of Mr. Charles' early albums, pretty much have been completed into CD, and they are available at Rhino Records. I believe they just merged with warner music, so it would probably be You can probably find anything you're looking for on Mr. Charles.


Baltimore, Md.: How can I obtain a copy of the film that was aired on May 18, 2005?

Will there be plans in the future on making a movie of Ray Charles' life of the "last 40 years"? Staring Jamie Fox.

Valerie Ervin: Yes.


Boca Raton, Fla.: Ms. Lacy, I know this program was done a while ago ... at the point in which you decided to make it, what was going on in Ray Charles' career to springboard it? Why Charles at that time, is what I'm asking.


Susan Lacy: There was nothing particular happening in Ray Charles' life at that time to springboard the film. American Master series is working on creating a library of American Cultural icons and those people who have most shaped our culture. Ray Charles was an obvious choice. He lived another 14 years, but he wasn't "young" then and we wanted to make sure we had his participation.

_______________________ Music from Ray Charles (


Belmond, Iowa: Before the movie "Ray" came out last year, I really had no connection to Ray Charles. As a 31-year-old, white, professional living in the DC metro area, all I knew about Ray Charles was that he was a blind, soul artist and his only recognizable songs to me were "Georgia on my Mind" and his version of "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl. Do you find, now that the movie has been released and it was so popular, that people are connecting with his music for the first time?? Also, what does the success of the movie say about Ray Charles legacy to his white audience?

Susan Lacy: One of the main reasons that I started this series was to create portraits of those individuals whose cultural contributions are so enduring, so that those portraits would be available to each new generation. That's the purpose of this series. So I am delighted when we find that one of our programs either renews or creates for the first time an awareness of these extraordinary individuals and their contribution to our culture. So I think the movie - and that's one of the reasons we wanted to air this documentary again - and I hate to use the word renew, but there are always going to be new generations coming to an artist for the first time. How wonderful is that?! Not every artist, like Ray, gets a movie - and that's the reason for an American Masters series!


Valerie Ervin: To elaborate a little, Mr. Charles felt that if a story was going to be made about his life, it had to be very accurate and done his way, so that people could see the true Ray Charles.


Susan Lacy: It's been a pleasure to be here today. Thank you all for your thoughtful questions. Keep watching American Masters. We'll be on next Wednesday with a film on Cary Grant. And the Wednesday after that, Ella Fitzgerald. And we'll be on every Wednesday till the end of September, with a big film on Bob Dylan, directed by Martin Scorcese. The first ever film on Bob Dylan that has any Bob Dylan music in it! Three and a half hours!

In watching this program again, I'm very proud of this wonderful film...I think our films over the years have become much more sophisticated, and if we were making the Ray Charles film today, it would be at least 90 minutes, so we could let the music play longer.


Valerie Ervin: Thanks for having me here! Keep listening! Keep your eye out, there will be more to come from Mr. Charles and his wonderful music. I'm sure if he was here today he would be more than honored to know that so many loved his work over the years, and were interested in where he came from and what he became. And in the words of Mr. Charles, for all those people who think they can't, practice, practice, practice, and you can become whatever it is you want to be.

_______________________ Next week's AMERICAN MASTERS, "Cary Grant: A Class Apart," airs on Wednesday, May 25, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check your local listings). A Live Online discussion will follow on Thursday, May 26, at Noon ET.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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